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Thinking about work after hours may worsen efficiency, research finds

February 7, 2024

According to research published in the Journal of Applied Psychology, thinking about work after hours can be a harmful habit, especially for leaders who have just taken over. The researchers say that constant ruminating can lead managers to burnout, which is detrimental to professional performance and the way employees perceive their boss.

To reach this conclusion, the scientists followed 73 leaders for ten days. Every morning before work, the researchers asked them to reflect on their experiences the night before and to report to what extent they had cognitively withdrawn from work and whether they had had recurring negative thoughts about their demands. The researchers then asked the professionals how energized they felt during the workday and how much they identified with their role as leaders.

The survey revealed that when leaders disconnected from work in the evening, they felt more invigorated the next day, which helped them identify more strongly with their role as a leaders. On the other hand, on days when they had reflected on work the night before, they felt more drained the next morning, hindering their ability to identify themselves as leaders.

“Because it takes energy to deal with leadership responsibilities, exhausted leaders may be unable or unwilling to fully immerse themselves in being a leader,” researchers Remy E. Jennings, Allison S. Gabriel, and Klodiana Lanaj stated in a piece published by the Harvard Business Review.

Based on these findings, the scientists have drawn up three practical recommendations for leaders:

Find ways to detach after work

“Leaders have a tendency to overwork and feel the need to always be available, but our results legitimize disconnecting from work and taking time to recover rather than continuing to think about work until late into the evening. Whether it is mastering a new hobby, exercising, spending time with loved ones, or simply reading a book to relax, leaders may be wise to find activities that they enjoy in the evening to turn their thoughts away from work.”

Establish boundaries between work and home

“Leaders tend to influence the communication norms for their teams, so clearly delineating one’s hours of availability to one’s employees may be helpful in ensuring adequate time each day to recover after work. Furthermore, creating guidelines for oneself about when work-related interruptions are allowed during non-work hours (e.g., what situations constitute leadership emergencies) may be a helpful practice both for leaders, and the individuals a leader supervises.”

Use recovery time to combat depletion and enhance your identity as a leader

“Leadership is hard, and those feeling refreshed in the morning may be more emboldened to take on leadership responsibilities compared to those leaders who start their workday feeling drained. Ultimately, leaders need to be intentional about managing their energy after hours. Barring emergencies, when at home, they need to disconnect from leadership responsibilities and recharge by engaging in family or leisure activities.”

“Our work counters the notion that leaders need to stay connected to their work at all hours to perform well in the eyes of their employees. Instead, we find that leaving work behind at the end of the day plays a key role in developing successful leaders,” the authors conclude.

Source: American Psychological Association | HBR